Shopping From Your Pantry First: Save Money, Eat Fresher

The Problem

I’ve recently been looking at my cupboards and pantry lately with some concern. I have rows of dried goods stacked neatly in mason jars. Bottles of tea, 18 of them, lined up neatly next to one another. They sit below the mason jars and next to the large collection of cooking oils I’ve collected. There are also the usual suspects. Bags of sugar, flour, pasta and sauces. Shifting focus to my pantry and things aren’t much better. There are stacks of partially used grains and beans. Back ups of what’s stored in my rows of mason jars in my cupboard. It’s a mess. Something needed to change.

What’s more, some of those grains and oils have taking up residency in my pantry for years! Sure, all the beans, grains and teas look good displayed in the glass jars, but this is my cupboard, not a museum! I’ve been thinking about what’s brought me to this place and I vaguely remember shopping for the groceries in question. Picking up bags of beans and pasta, “staples” that I thought I would need to make meals. Only those meals never came and I am left with a cupboard full of food that has been neglected for nearly half a decade. No bueno.

I’ve come to realize that I’m treating my food stores like you would curate pieces for a museum. But this is no way to nourish yourself. Eating hoarded goods that are that old is unnecessary. And more to the point, it tells me something about the ways I’m relating to my food. Why am I holding on to these items? Why am I massing these foods to begin with? The answers to these questions were directly related to the ways I was brought up and how I learned, or rather didn’t learn, how to nourish myself and my body.

Lessons on Nourishing Our Bodies

I was brought up in a house that was barren of a lot of things. Mostly love, but food was a close second. We always had enough to eat growing up. But there was no deviating from the plan my caregivers had mapped out. We had the same five or six meals on repeat. There were always boxes of cereal and bottles of soda in the cupboards and sometimes leftovers in the fridge. Not the healthiest foods, but we were also unaware of the health risks that came with some of these foods.

I was often uncertain of what I was able to eat. This was due to my caregiver often saying, “there’s a house full of food, I don’t know why you’re hungry”. Though I was severely scolded when I attempted to defrost pork chops one day in an attempt to make a meal with the house full of food I was in. The messages I received were mixed and confusing around food.

The Basics

And to add to the confusion, I was never taught the basics of how to take care of my nutritional needs. I was never shown how to budget for groceries, taught how to cook meals for myself or even that I should eat when I’m hungry! I skipped breakfast and lunch for decades because of these lessons. One of the lesson being, coffee was a meal substitute. I also didn’t start grocery shopping until I was in my late twenties. Or really cook meals for myself until about seven years ago! This is crazy to me thinking about it now. But food, along with a myriad of other topics, just didn’t get discussed.

If you’ve read my post on rotating your food stores, I go over the ways I was taught to neglect my nutritional needs in a bit more detail. You’ll also find some suggestions on how to change old habits that you’ve cultivated. If like me you’ve suffered from a life’s time worth of feeling a drift in a sea of food insecurity. But I’m back with a plan and want to share with you what I’m doing in my kitchen. To help change my relationship to food and how I care for my nutritional needs now. Let me show what I’ve come up with!

The Plan

As the title of this post suggests, the beginning of my journey starts in my pantry. Among the bottles of carefully curated seeds, grains, beans and flours, this is where I had amassed a large quantity of food items. To give you a sense of scale, I have close to thirty bottles of dried goods on my shelf! So the first step was to take stock of the ingredients I have on hand and do some research on what types of recipes I would be able to utilize the ingredients in.

Using What I Have

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, Minimalist Baker is a great resource for using the ingredients you have on hand. Because a good portion of her recipes use ten ingredients or fewer and most of them are pantry staples like onions and garlic. She also has a great post on how to stock a pantry here. But you can use whatever site you enjoy the recipes from the most. Most sites will have a search bar where you can type in an ingredient and do a quick search for recipes that include that ingredient. Minimalist Baker has a search by ingredient filter which is ideal for this situation.

So after I’ve taken stock of what I have in my pantry, I choose three or four ingredients to focus on for my meal prep. Let’s say I’ve chosen the five pound bag of cranberries that has been collecting dust, the jar of kidney beans that are old enough to eat solid foods, the two bags of black beans that are surprisingly young considering their shelf mates and a half of a jar of yellow lentils.

I take these four ingredients and do a quick search on my go-to recipe website. I find that I can use the Kidney and black beans in a chili with onion and sweet potatoes I already have. So I put the few items on the shopping list that are missing from my pantry that are in the recipe and move onto the next ingredient I’ve chosen.

Overnight oats are already on the menu for the next few weeks. So adding the cranberries to the mix with the seed and nuts I pick up from the market was an easy match. And the ingredients for the curried, lemon lentils I planned for, I already on hand. I put a few more ingredients on the shopping list, staples and some items for my self-care Sunday dinner and my shopping list is complete. I only have about a dozen items on my list and even though I’m shopping at Whole Foods, my grocery bill was still only 45$ for two weeks!

Save Money Use What You Have & Stay Organized

If you use the grocery store for supplemental supplies to your pantry, and you shop mostly whole foods, i.e. fresh produce and unprocessed meats, generic brands, bulk section items like grains and beans and staples like butter and milk, your grocery bill is surprisingly light. You also have the added benefit of eating a healthier diet full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. And the fresher the better. The longer your food sits around, the less nutritional value it retains.

Simple But Effective System For Grocery Shopping

I’ve also come up with a way to organize my shopping list so I can easily scan my recipes and know which ingredients to purchase. First, I make a list of the recipes I’ll be cooking. Second, I make a list of all the separate ingredients from all of the recipes I’m using. So I have two lists, one list of recipes, and the other a list of grocery items that are ingredients in the recipes on the first list.

Next, I assign a different symbol to each recipe. For example, if chili is on my recipe list, that recipe has a symbol such as +. Then I go down the list of ingredients and put a + symbol next to any ingredients that are in the + recipe.

I repeat this process for each recipe, adding ingredients to my items list. This way, when I choose the recipes I’m cooking for the next few weeks from my recipe list and place the recipe symbol next to the corresponding item, I can quickly see how much of an ingredients I need.

This works particularly well with double batches of recipes or multiples. For example, say I’m making three recipes that all use garlic and one of the recipes I’m making is going to be a double batch. On the ingredients list, garlic may look like this, “% + 2* Garlic”. The symbols “%+” represent the recipes I’m making, with a double batch of *, so I put a 2 before the symbol to modify the amount. So when I add the symbols together, “+ % 2*”, I know I’ll need enough garlic for four recipes. And when I put garlic on my shopping list, I put it on as “garlic x 4”. This way I can purchase just what I need for the recipes I’m cooking without buying too much. This also helps to keep my food stores fresher.

Save Money by Growing Your Own

Speaking of fresh stock, if you have a green thumb, this is a perfect opportunity to shop super fresh, real local and on the cheap! I’m lucky enough to have a sizeable vegetable garden. Last year we didn’t need to buy garlic until about a few weeks ago. And for the cost of a few packets of seed, your return on investment is ridiculously high. It does require planning and maintenance. Also to plant vegetables that you will actually use in the recipes you choose.

Planning is important in that if you like cucumbers, but don’t know that they are prolific producers, planting too many and you’re going to be swimming in brine from all the pickles you’ll be making. So when planning a garden, do the research and know how many to plant. Knowing when to plant is equally as important. And you don’t need a lot of space to grow your own. Container gardens are popular in cities where green space is limited. Maybe start with growing a few of the herbs and spices you use most frequently. This way, you’ll have a fresh selection on hand when it comes time to cook. And how do you know what to cook or grow?

Choosing Your Recipes

This was something I struggled with for a while. That is until I read this post on how to set up my pantry. Dana from Minimalist Baker suggested to pick ten or so recipes that you cook often, buying your pantry staples from that list of recipes. It made so much sense to me that I immediately got to selecting the recipes I liked and use most frequently. Then I put them in a bookmark folder labeled as such on my browser.

The only problem with this method is, that for me, there is a lack of variety. And I’m not cooking the same meals in the summer that I am in the winter. So I decided to create four folders with ten recipes each. They correspond to each season with ingredients that are available during that time of year. This way I’ll have three months to use up whatever food I have from the list of ingredients I use. And I always have something new to choose from. Paired with my self-care Sunday dinners, where I chose a new recipe to try each week, I won’t be short on new recipes to try.

I also batch cook my meals for two to three weeks ahead. This way I know I’ll have what I need to make my meals well in advance. Because I already have my recipes picked out. This way my shopping list is only a matter of quickly scanning my pantry, to see what I’m missing.

And Take the Time to Plan It All Out

This may seem overwhelming at first glance. And it can be a bit much to take on. What I find works best to help ease some of the tension of preparing meals is, giving myself plenty of time. I usually sit down at some point during the week and plan out what the next three weeks menu is going to look like. Here is where I also plan for the day to day stuff. Exercise, appointments and general domestics. Like when I’m cooking and shopping for that day.

This takes the stress out of not knowing when I’ll have the time to fit it all into my schedule. It also gives me plenty of time to plan for my upcoming shopping trip and cooking day. I’ll start by picking a day to shop and cook. The night before, I’ll check to see what I have for ingredients for the three or four recipes I’ve chosen. I’ll shop from my pantry first, then add the items I’m missing to the shopping list, along with what I’m getting low on. Like nut milk or margarine and I’m ready to shop the following day.

Shopping Day

On shopping day, I take my list and usually shop after work. When I get home, I set the tone for the night by getting my area clean, ready my recipes, light a candle and play some soft music. I turn off the harsh over head lights and then start my cooking process. Making sure to go as slow as I need to so I don’t feel rushed. Meal prep has become an integral part of my self-care routine and something I find great joy in. Being in the food industry as long as I have been, it’s important not to rush yourself. Feeling that pressure leads to stress. It was fun in my 20’s, but not so much now.

And with the ingredients prepped before I jump into cooking, the recipe comes together in no time. And the stress is nearly non-existent. I also keep my meals for the next few weeks in glass Mason jars in the fridge. Seeing them lined up on the counter to cool before they go into the fridge with the relaxing environment carries with it a sense of accomplishment.

And this brings us back to the starting new, healthier habits surrounding our food choices. Now that we’ve cleaned out the old items, and made room and space for new and fresher ingredients to be rotated in and out of use, the new question is, how much food do we really need to keep on hand?

Evaluating Your Needs

This answer will be different for everyone. I know that my food needs are different from a family of five’s. But where do we draw the line on what is enough? For me, a goal of having enough staple ingredients for a month’s worth of staple recipes is optimal. This way, my food stores stay fresh and I can incorporate new recipes into my meal plan as I see fit. Also I’m not holding onto items I don’t need because I’m afraid that if I don’t have them, something terrible will happen.

And that is the main goal. To take the fear and anxiety of preparing meals out of our food and the ways we nourish ourselves. It’s a little different if you’ve had negative experiences with and around food. But eating is so closely linked to our safety and well being. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed if you don’t know what you’re doing. If you were left in the dark as I was, fumbling around trying to understand how to care for yourself without guidance, it can feel scary to go it alone.

I hope sorting through my pantry has been helpful to you in some way. If you have any comments or methods you use that you’ve found help you in the kitchen, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below. And as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Spice Management” by Sharon Drummond is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Updated: 9/16/22

Author: nolabelsliving

Social worker by day, blogger by night. I have a lot of lived experience which is why I started my blog. I was not given any direction when I started out on my journey, but have been blessed with some amazing support and guidance along the way. Just want to give back a little of what I've received : )

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